As a proud step-parent, you care dearly for your spouse’s children, and your relationship with them is likely rich, enduring and full of love. Whether you recently married into the family, or you’ve been functioning as a family unit for over a decade, you’d like to explore the possibility of legally adopting your stepchildren. Before you initiate the process, however, you need to learn more about what it entails. What are the benefits and risks? What mistakes do other step-parents make, and how can you avoid them?
Below, we catalogue the myths and realities of step-parent adoption.
Step-parent Adoption Myths
1. You can’t adopt without the biological parent’s consent. A lack of consent can delay the adoption, but it will not necessarily prevent it. Depending on circumstances, the court can agree to hold a hearing to determine grounds for termination of parental rights, such as emotional unfitness, felony records, long-term addictions and abandonment of the children.
2. The process takes years to finalize. For stepparents, the process is often fairly quick, and it can be finalized within two months if both biological parents agree with the decision. Even when the biological parent does not want his or her parental rights terminated, a court ruling on the matter might happen fairly swiftly if, for instance, you can convincing show that he abandoned the family.
3. The stepchildren must agree to the adoption. In Minnesota this is true if the child is 14 years old or older. Obviously, the process will go more smoothly if everyone is on board, but the courts do not require younger children’s approval.
4. The stepchildren will easily adjust to the new family dynamic. The transition can be challenging, especially if the non-custodial parent protested or if the divorce between the two biological parents led to a drawn out battle over money or complex court proceedings.
Step-parent Adoption Realities
1. The biological parent abdicates rights. By agreeing to the adoption, the biological parent gives up all parental rights and responsibilities, including requirements to support the children financially. (One exception: the parent owes child support in arrears.)
2. Minnesota courts require a background check of adoptive stepparents. A qualified family law attorney can give you guidance on preparing for this step in the adoption process.
3. Addressing emotional issues with children can help them through the adoption process. Here’s an excellent article from WebMD about what you can do to create conditions for solid family relationships. In particular, you and your partner might find it resourceful to identify common ground: “All the parents need to discuss their methods — rewards, punishments, chores, allowances, bedtimes, homework — and come to an agreement about the rules,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. “The transition is much easier if the parents are in accord. If something happens you haven’t discussed, just defer to one parent, and work it out later.”
4. A family lawyer can help expedite the adoption. You case may involve complex paperwork, sensitive negotiations, court appearances and technical issues.